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Strange but true: Scientists have lost their sense of fun

Q: When science writers pen titles like "Bye-Bye Boojums," what's disappearing? Why the tone of regret?

A: Lewis Carroll created the mythical boojum in a famous nonsense poem, "The Hunting of the Snark":

"In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of the laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away —

For the Snark was a boojum, you see."

Half a century later, theoretical physicist David Mermin decided the name would be a perfect fit for a new phenomenon in low-temperature physics.

The regret expressed by "New Scientist" magazine's Richard Webb was that, though science has had a long tradition of allowing individuals to name their discoveries, they are more and more losing their sense of naming fun.

"The Big Bang," ironically dubbed by physicist Fred Hoyle, helped cement the concept in the public imagination. Then there's "quark": When theorist Murray Gell-Mann was looking to name particles making up protons and neutrons, he hit upon a drunkard's line from James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake": "Three quarks for Muster Mark."

But scientific nomenclature today is being standardized, often draining the color out of it. For example, the International Astronomical Union leans more to star names like HR 2491 and HR 2061 rather than the earlier Sirius and Betelgeuse.

The IAU is a bit more relaxed about the names of bodies within the solar system, such as asteroids named after the author of Harry Potter books or after a "Star Trek" actor or a German industrial metal band.

Q: From a Cleveland, Ohio, reader: "Can you help me put the relative size of things more in perspective: If an atom were as large as a coffee ground, how big would a human red blood cell be? How about a human hair? A full human being?"

A: Assuming a coffee ground has a diameter of about 1 millimeter, it is about 10 million times bigger than a single hydrogen atom. So if an atom were the size of a coffee ground, then a red blood cell would have a diameter about the length of a football field, a human hair would have a thickness of more than half a mile and the height of an average person would be greater than the diameter of the Earth!

Q: Take a wild guess at the world's most dangerous profession. No, it's not a sword-swallower or lion tamer. Guess again.

A: Surprisingly, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics has rated elephant-keeper as the single most dangerous profession, says Frans de Waal in "The Age of Empathy." In Thailand alone, more than 50 mahouts (caretakers/trainers) are killed every year. One problem is the unexpected speed of elephants, combined with the velvety quietness of their approach. Another is their cuddly "jumbo" image, leading workers to lower their guard.

The appeal these animals hold for humans is nothing less than astonishing, dating back to ancient Rome.

Elephants easily arouse our sympathy — playing, jostling in water holes, sliding and splashing as if they have a sense of humor — so it's all too easy to forget how comparatively tiny and vulnerable we are.

It's a bit like having a tractor in the garage that can start its own engine at any time and drive out on the road, uprooting vegetation, leveling small dwellings and crushing people. Thus de Waal remains impressed by the commitment of keepers in sanctuaries, where elephants are known to give "orchestral" performances on xylophones. "Now, what other animal could generate such devotion?"

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com

© Bill Sones and Rich Sones, Ph.D.